How does the vaccine work and how effective is it?
The HPV vaccine contains particles that look like the HPV virus, which prompt your child’s body to generate antibodies that protect them from an infection if they’re exposed to HPV in the future. They can’t get HPV infection from vaccination.
The vaccine is very effective in reducing HPV-related cancers, particularly if people get it when they’re young. The CDC recently found that HPV infections that cause most HPV cancers and genital warts (which also are caused by HPV), dropped by 88% in female teens and 81% in young women, compared to before the vaccine was available.
Also, a recent British study showed that 13 years after the vaccine was introduced, it cut cervical cancer rates by 87% among young women in the U.K. who were vaccinated between ages 12 and 13.
Since the vaccine protects against most but not all the types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, vaccination still has to be combined with Pap smears and/or HPV tests to combat cervical cancer, starting in one’s early 20s.
Who should get the vaccine and when?
We recommend that all children get the vaccine series between ages 9 to 12 so that they can finish the series before they turn 13, well before they are ever exposed to HPV. We have found that younger people have a better immune response, meaning they generate higher levels of antibodies to protect them from the virus.
Children 14 and under need two shots; the second is given six to 12 months after the first. Children 15 or older should get three shots—the second dose in one to two months after the first shot, and then a third dose six months later. The vaccine is strongly recommended for people up to age 26 and can be given up to age 45, but patients should discuss the benefits of vaccination at an older age with their doctor.
How safe is the vaccine and what are its side effects?
It is very safe. Side effects can include pain, redness, or swelling at the injection site, fever, fatigue, headaches, nausea, and muscle pain.
Some children can also experience fainting, often due to a fear of needles. If your child is very afraid, they should lie down or have a sip of water or some candy or juice after they are vaccinated to help prevent that from happening.
The benefits of vaccination outweigh the temporary, mild side effects.
How do I prepare my child for getting vaccinated when the time comes?
A lot of kids have heard about cancer before or had a family member affected by it. In my practice, kids will say, “I don’t want a needle.” But when you say, “This is a vaccine that prevents cancer,” many of them say, “Oh, then fine.”
With any vaccine, I reassure the child that it’ll be really quick. If they need it, we can give them pain medication for later if they develop any side effects.
Why are some parents hesitant about the HPV vaccine?
Studies show that some parents worry about the vaccine’s safety, but the HPV vaccine has been approved since 2006 and has been shown to be very safe and effective, with over 135 million doses distributed in the U.S. Some parents are worried that their child will start having sex earlier or become promiscuous, or that the vaccine will affect their child’s fertility, but multiple studies have shown that these concerns do not occur.
I oversee a social media campaign—@ENDHPVNYC—made by teens for teens to counter this misinformation and promote positive, factually correct information about the HPV vaccine. In addition, I give talks to physicians and community members about the risks of HPV and the importance of the HPV vaccine.
My hope is that we can get most kids vaccinated for HPV so that we can reduce and even eliminate HPV-related cancers in the future, as is happening in places like Australia. It’s crucial for pediatricians to take the time to explain to parents why the HPV vaccine is important for their child’s health. The most important thing parents can do to protect their children against HPV-related cancer is to get the HPV vaccine years before they are ever exposed to HPV.